Kerry & naomi's Reviews > The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia

The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia by Philip Sidney
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There are actually three versions of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia in existence: the first version, called The Old Arcadia; the second, unfinished version, referred to in this review as The New Arcadia; and the hybrid book completed by Sidney’s sister, the Countess of Pembroke and Sir William Alexander with a bridging passage and the last two books of The Old Arcadia attached, called The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. *

Some scholars argue against study of the hybrid edition of the Arcadia because it was not what Sidney intended and we do not know how Sidney would have finished The New Arcadia. However, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia is the form in which this romance novel was published and read for the first 340 years after Sidney’s untimely death in 1582.

The Old Arcadia

Two princes of Greece, Pyrocles and Musidorus, on their way to Pyrocles’ kingdom, Macedonia, from Musidorus’ kingdom, Thessalia, happen upon the duchy of Arcadia, ruled by Basilius. Basilius had consulted the Oracle of Delphi and received a rather ambiguous, but no less threatening, prophecy concerning his daughters and he and his wife, Gynecia. To thwart the prophecy, Basilius takes his family into a retreat in the Arcadian wilderness. His younger daughter, Philoclea, lives in one lodge with her parents. The older daughter and heir to the kingdom, lives in another lodge with Dametas, a clownish shepherd, and his shrewish wife, Miso, and their ignorant daughter Mopsa.

Pyrocles falls in love with Philoclea’s picture (one of the usual romantic devices of the time) and hatches a scheme to win his ladylove by disguising himself as an Amazon and taking the name Cleophila. Musidorus thinks Pyrocles/Cleophila is out of his mind until he sees and falls in love with Pamela. Musidorus disguises himself as a lowly shepherd and joins in the fun. Both princes gain access to their ladies since Basilius only keeps young, marriageable men away from them (lower class shepherds don’t count as “marriageable”). Pamela and Philoclea chafe under the rather harsh restrictions placed upon them in this backwater with only a shepherd’s wife and her daughter for company.

The princes infiltrate Basilius’ household in their disguises and almost instantaneously win his gratitude when they save the princesses and Gynecia from a lion and a bear that attack the picnicking party. The princes then save Basilius from being overthrown as the duke by a bunch of drunken rabble-rousers. Despite these feats and others reported about them in the shepherds’ eclogues, the princes belie their valor by not going to the aid of Erona when they learn that she has been imprisoned and will be killed within the year if they do not meet the challenge of her captor.

If this wasn’t enough, both Basilius and Gynecia fall in love with Pyrocles/Cleophila and he has difficulty getting Philoclea alone to court her properly; Musidorus has to contend with Mopsa who thinks the shepherd Dorus is in love with her. Through various events that I won’t spoil by writing about here, Musidorus and Pyrocles end up on trial for their crimes against Arcadia with their father/uncle, Euarchus, king of Macedonia, sitting as their judge. Euarchus has not seen either his son or his nephew since their childhood when Pyrocles mother died and he was sent to Thessalia to be brought up by Euarchus’ sister, and does not recognize the young princes who have not yet revealed their true identities.

Sidney packs in several plot twists and one does wonder how he’ll get our heroes out of each predicament and win their ladies too since this is, after all, a comedic romance. But Sidney does so rather ingeniously and even fulfills all the stipulations of the prophecy as well.

From a critical standpoint, however, the ending leaves the reader with an ethical conflict but a true picture of a paradox of Elizabethan society: while a man is young he should marry for love; once he’s married and the patriarch of a family, he should ensure that his children marry for social advantage—love has nothing to do with the marriage contract.

My edition of The Old Arcadia is edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones. She indicated the footnotes with asterisks so that the reader then turns to the back of the book to find the appropriate footnote for that page. This edition also contains a glossary, which I found very useful for non-footnoted terms like “pantofle” (slipper). I did find the flipping back and forth somewhat cumbersome.

The New Arcadia

Sidney decided to rewrite his Arcadia as more of an epic romance, possibly thinking to publish the new volume for public consumption since The Old Arcadia was kept among a small group of Sidney’s and the Countess of Pembroke’s friends. He began expanding upon The Old Arcadia and was well into the third section (or “book”) when he was wounded in battle and died from the complications of his wound three weeks later.

The basic plot remains the same: Basilius has retreated to the Arcadian wilderness with his wife and daughters (though Arcadia is now a kingdom rather than a duchy) due to an oracular prophecy; Pyrocles and Musidorus fall in love with the princesses and disguise themselves to woo them though Pyrocles takes the name Zelmane (much less confusing than Cleophila). In addition, Sidney recounts Musidorus’ and Pyrocles’ adventures prior to arriving in Arcadia in great detail and not just casual mentions in the shepherd’s eclogues. Sidney also adds a great number of new characters: Amphialus, who is in love with Philoclea, and his evil mother Cecropia; Parthenia and her husband Argalus, a great knight; Helen of Corinth, who is in love with Amphialus; Erona’s marriage to her servant Antiphilus is recorded along with Artaxia’s and Plangus’ part in her imprisonment and many more subplots and story lines that turn the 364 pages of The Old Arcadia into 595 pages before Sidney finished the third book of The New Arcadia. Sidney added more battle scenes and jousts, more intrigues and love affairs, and, especially more wrangling between young people in love and parental authority figures.

The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia

The plot of the hybrid is the same as The New Arcadia and the ending is the same as The Old Arcadia with a few editorial changes. Sir William Alexander wrote a 30-page bridging passage before the addition of the last half of the third book and the fourth and fifth books of The Old Arcadia. The bridging passage serves to get the kidnapped princesses and Zelmane out of Cecropia’s castle and back to their father’s lodges while tying up loose ends with the myriad other characters whom Sidney had introduced. We pick up with Musidorus and Pamela fleeing Arcadia for Thessalia and Pyrocles tricking Basilius and Gynecia both so that he can spend the night with Philoclea. The scene of potential rape and other events of the same night were tastefully edited out of the hybrid edition by the Countess to preserve Sidney’s intent in The New Arcadia of making his heroes heroic in actuality and not half-grown boys playing at heroism.

Maurice Evans edited my edition of The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. In lieu of a glossary he gives definitions of unfamiliar words, indicated by asterisks, at the bottom of each page and once again has the explanatory notes, though numbered, at the back of the volume, occasioning much flipping back and forth. This edition also contains a list of characters at the beginning which greatly assisted me in keeping track of who was in love with or related to whom.

Practical Matters

Both of my editions have standardized spelling and have moderately updated language from the original versions. Where possible for understanding and clear meaning, Sidney’s words were preserved in the books, just spelled in the 21st century manner rather than the wildly vacillating methods of the 16th century. While some might lament that one should read Sidney’s words just as he wrote them (very much like Shakespeare’s language), I personally like the updated volumes because they’re not nearly so arduous for the casual reader. Only scholars would read the originals, but these volumes are much better suited for general readers.

All three Arcadia are divided into books with pastoral eclogues providing poetic intervals between the books. The eclogues are not necessary for advancing the plot but ably demonstrate Sidney’s ability as a poet to move between different forms.


I highly recommend Sidney’s Arcadia. It has something for everyone: romance, adventure, violence (though not horribly graphic), a fantastic trial scene, irony, and enough twists to keep the reader interested. I especially recommend The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia to teenaged readers, although it runs nearly 850 pages, because it’s clean, the heroes and heroines are between 15 and 18 years of age, and the heroes win out over parental authority in a “coming of age” fashion.

*One could easily argue that all three Arcadia are “The Countess of Pembroke’s,” since Sidney wrote them for her, dedicated them to her, and gave her control of his literary estate upon his death. I’m employing the titles “Old,” “New,” and “The Countess of Pembroke’s” to clarify which volume I’m referring to in this review.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
May 26, 2016 – Shelved as: paper
May 26, 2016 – Shelved
October 19, 2017 – Shelved (Other Paperback Edition)
October 19, 2017 – Shelved as: given-away (Other Paperback Edition)
October 19, 2017 – Shelved as: given-away

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